by Terry Rogers
Erich Barkentine of Milton and Kyle Hoyd of Felton both say that a love of the outdoors led them to join the Delaware Wildland Fire Crew. Both men have traveled to western states to battle wildfires and Burkentine is currently in Colorado supervising a crew.
“I grew up in an outdoor family, hunting, fishing and hiking,” Burkentine said. “Even when I was young, I developed a mindset that I wanted to get a job where I could walk in the woods. I went to school for forestry and started working for the Park Service in 2000. This led me to several positions and I am now the Southern Regional Forester for Redden Forest.” While attending college, Burkentine put his way through school working as a logger. This gave him experience with cutting trees, a tactic often used by wildfire fighters to slow the spread of a fire. When he first joined the Delaware Wildland Fire Crew, he spent most of his time “on a saw” due to his experience.
Hoyd grew up in Pennsylvania and attended the Pennsylvania College of Technology as well as West Virginia University where he majored in Forestry. He worked as a certified arborist for several years before joining the Delaware Forest Service in 2005 as an urban forester. In 2010, he became the urban forestry coordinator and the Assistant Forestry Administrator in 2014.
“I was involved with prescribed fire in Pennsylvania and by coming on board with the forest service in 2005, I had the opportunity to sign up,” Hoyd said. “In 2006, I went on my first assignment to boundary waters of Minnesota where I was a basic FFT-2 and FAL trainee. I enjoy helping others and seeing the impact my work does.”
All Wildland Fire Crew members must take basic courses that the Delaware Forest Service offers, including Introduction to Incident Management Systems, Introduction to NIMS, Introduction to Wildfire Behavior, Basic Woodland Firefighter, Human Factors on the Fire Line and more. This qualifies the firefighters to become a National Wildfire Coordination Group (NWCG) FFT-2 firefighter. Each year, the firefighters must complete refresher training which covers safety, tactics, live burning exercises, shelter deployment and a 3-mile, 45-pound P-pack test in 45 minutes. Hoyd and Burkentine have also completed several advanced firefighter training courses. Hoyd is qualified as an Incident Commander Type 5, Faller 2 (sawyer) and Engine Boss. Berkentine moved into a Squad Boss position and has been a Crew Boss since 2008.
“As a firefighter, your work is mostly physical which can be difficult,” Burkentine said. “As a leader, you not only have the physical work but mental requirements as well. You are responsible for your squad or crew, their safety, making sure they follow standard operating procedures, making sure it is all done right. It can be exhausting.”
Hoyd also feels that the mental fatigue is the most difficult part of the work, pointing out that the crews work 14-16 hour shifts.
“By the time you eat and prepare equipment for the next day, it turns into a 17-18 hour day,” Hoyd said. “We work for 14 days on the line during our assignments and a trip generally is 16-18 days by the time you add travel. Given that you are sleeping on the ground, working long shifts and in an area that is generally in another time zone, you are working with little sleep, which results in many people having a more difficult time mentally than physically. We train all members of our wildland fire crew and generally can tell if they can make it on an assignment physically, but the mental part is the hardest to train. WE have seen some of the most physically fit firefighters struggle because of the mental fatigue.”
Both Hoyd and Burkentine say that even with the mental and physical fatigue, the teamwork and camaraderie among those fighting fires is incredible.
“This job is super dangerous, you don’t make much money, but it is one of the most rewarding things you can do,” Burkentine said. “What we accomplish with a small group of people is nothing short of amazing and it is done under the most horrible circumstances. The guys in your crew and in your squad are the only ones you can talk to about this. They understand it. These people become your family.”
Hoyd echoes Burkentine’s sentiments, saying that the Type 2 Initial Attack crew he belongs to is more of a family and not just people working together. “Even if we only see each other once a year for an assignment, it does not feel that way,” Hoyd said. “I would also say that seeing the work that the crew does and how it benefits those affected by wildfires is another beg factor in being part of the crew.”
In addition to the camaraderie among the firefighters, Burkentine said that he loves the amazing scenery he is exposed to during assignments. He sees areas of the country that the general public does not get to see. According to Burkentine, the western part of the country has large areas of forest that are disappearing from the East Coast.
“It is getting harder and harder on the East Coast to find locations without a human connection,” Burkentine said. “You may be able to wander into the woods, but you will more than likely come across power lines or other things that indicate people have been there. Out west, I may be sleeping on the ground, but my view is 14,000 foot peaks. I feel my job, no matter what capacity I am working in, is to preserve the legacy of nature so that people 10, 100 or 1,000 years from now can enjoy the beauty of a flower, see wildlife in their natural habitat or simply spend time outdoors.”
Individuals interested in joining the Delaware Wildland Crew can contact their office at 302-698-4548 or view the qualifications online at https://agriculture.delaware.gov/forest-service/wildland-crew/.
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